Sir James Spens of Wormiston (1571-1632)

Sir James Spens of Wormiston was born in 1571, and in 1594 was a Provost in Crail in Fife. He, his stepfather (John Anstruther) and others (such as Patrick, Abbot of Lindores, Colonel William Stewart, Captain William Murray, Mr James Learmonth of Balcomie, Sir James Anstruther of that Ilk and James Forret of Fingask) were engaged in a plan to occupy and populate Lewis with Lowlanders in 1598 but the attempt failed and he was left as a hostage. The Aberdeen burgh impost accounts record on the 11 May 1605 the fee for a boat belonging to the “Lewis merchant” James Spens and this is most likely the same man. Very soon after this, Spens’ attentions turned toward Sweden.

Scottish adventurer and diplomatist, was son of David Spens of Wormiston, by his wife Margaret Learmouth. His father formed one of the party which captured the regent Lennox at Stirling in 1571, and was shot while trying to guard him from injury. In consequence of his treason his estates were forfeited (Burton, Hist. of Scotland, 2nd ed. v. 40–1). In 1594 the son James was provost of Craill in Fifeshire, and during the rising of Bothwell he was called on to find security in 500l. for the borough (Masson, Register of the Scottish Privy Council, v. 133–4, 142).

In 1598 he and several other Scottish gentlemen, including his stepfather, Sir James Anstruther of that ilk, entered into a project to settle and civilise the Lewis. Having obtained a grant from James VI, they furnished themselves with arms and shipping, and landed in Stornoway harbour in October 1599. At first all went well. They took peaceful possession of the country, and the inhabitants, mostly McLeods, submitted to them. But when lulled into security they were suddenly assailed by Norman McLeod, and obliged to resign to him their rights to the island, and to promise to obtain an amnesty for the islanders. Spens and another were left as hostages for the fulfilment of the conditions of peace, and for the time the enterprise was abandoned (ib. v. 462, 467, vi. 420–3). The attack on the Lewis was renewed by others in 1605, but the undertaking again proved too great for private adventurers. On being released by McLeod, Spens entered the service of Charles IX of Sweden, but was recalled by James VI, who wished to promote peace between Sweden and Denmark, and was unwilling to allow the Swedish service to be recruited from Scotland. In the beginning of 1612 James sent Sir James Spens, now a knight, to Sweden, as ambassador on the accession of Gustavus Adolphus, to urge on him the expediency of peace with Denmark (ib. ix. 433). In this mission he was unsuccessful, and in 1615 he was again in Scotland, enjoying a pension of 200l. This he surrendered in 1619, perhaps on receiving a commission to compound with persons in trade who had not qualified as apprentices. As this office, however, was thought too important to be held by a subject of the crown, it was resumed also with a promise of compensation (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23; Addenda, 1580–1625, p. 631).

Spens’ first military contact in Sweden

Spens appears to have been first approached by King Karl IX (1599-1611) in 1605 when he asked Spens and his brother David to arrange the levy of 1600 infantry and 600 cavalry for Sweden, with the proviso that this was undertaken with King James VI & I’s permission. For each 300 men Spens would receive 1600 daler. Spens was to be made a colonel over the troops he brought over. In 1608 Spens heard again from Karl IX this time offering 1700 daler per company of 200 infantry, and the same would be paid for each company of 100 cavalry. The Swedish king was obviously keen to have Spens on board as that year he sent 700 daler to Spens and the next year he provided 4500 riksdaler for the recruitment. There is a travel pass dated 17 December 1609 for Spens, Samuel Cockburn, John Wauchop, Patrick Ruthven, Hugo Cochran, Daniel Rogers, Robert Kinnaird, George Douglas, and William Horne to go to Britain, presumably on a recruiting mission.

Spens as a diplomat

In 1610 Spens came as the Stuart Court legate to Sweden. Some of the 1200 British troops to be recruited by Spens were sent to Russia around this time under a lieutenant-colonel Calvine and another 300 went with Cockburn (see Lubimenko’s printed letter of Thomas Chamberlain). The regiment strength was put at 600 horse and 1800 foot, and Spens had been the regiment’s colonel some 20 years, although whether Spens himself accompanied the men to Russia is unclear. The regiment was lent to the Russians by the Swedes and placed under the overall command in Russia of General Endred Horne, senior Swedish general there. Spens became general of all British troops in Sweden that same year, and got the task of recruiting a further 3000 men. He was Swedish legate to the Stuart Court in 1611 when King Karl IX wrote him seeking recruits. As Sweden was at war with Denmark-Norway Spens was worried about his and the recruits’ safety on their travel to Sweden. And in fact Karl IX had to complain to King Christian IV in April about some Danes (200 in one report) who the previous year had strayed half a Swedish mile into Swedish territory, bearing arms, attacked Spens, robbing him of letters and money, killing one of his associates and abusing 4 others. This point was specifically brought up when the Swedes confronted Christian IV in December 1612 about the perceived Danish provocation which had led to war. In addition to this Christian IV’s men had detained Spens for 3 days at the Helsinborg port. Spens had a personal audience with the king at Risby on 4 September 1611, and at Jönköping on 8 July 1612. In between those meetings he had returned to London as an envoy and as diplomatic correspondent to the Stuart Court between March and June 1612. Spens also levied ca.1000 Scottish soldiers for Swedish service, implying that either he or an agent of his had been to Scotland. These soldiers were to disembark in Oslo and be met there by secret Swedish guides who would lead them to Sweden. He mediated in the double duty of Swedish-Stuart representative along with Sir Robert Anstruther, his step-father’s grandson, in 1612-13 for the Knared peace treaty between Sweden and Denmark. Axel Oxenstierna, Nicolas Bielke and Gustav Stenbock wrote King James VI and I on 21 January 1613 to compliment Spens and Anstruther on their “fide, diligentia, industria” in the negotiations. Spens returned to London in 1613 and served as the Swedish ambassador to the Stuart court. During 1614 he appears to have been in Sweden as that year in September Chancellor Oxenstierna replied to him with regard to issues Spens had raised on behalf of some English merchants and their complaints. Spens was the Stuart court ambassador to Sweden in 1619, 1620, and 1624 and Denmark-Norway in 1619. Although he sometimes appeared in Denmark, his loyalty to the Swedish Crown was well-received and rewarded. Not only did he hold land in Sweden, the estate of Orreholm which he obtained in April 1622, but he was also ennobled as a baron in Sweden, and his sons subsequently enjoyed the privileges of nobility and the right to remain Calvinists. The Spens coat of arms can be seen displayed in Riddarhuset in Stockholm.

Spens and the Polish, Bohemian and 30 Years’ Wars

After the Bohemian revolt, 1618-1621, the exiled King of Bohemia and Prince Charles of Wales (later King Charles I) offered monthly subsidies to cover a Swedish attack on the Imperial forces. However, the Swedes were keen to effect a confederation with Great Britain and the Netherlands and Spens was given the diplomatic missions. In December 1623 Spens was en route to the continent, via Lubeck. In June 1624 he was also engaged in the recruitment of British troops for King Gustav II Adolf and was appointed General of all British troops in Swedish service. Spens was the Stuart court ambassador to the Netherlands in 1624 and in September he left Sweden on a mission to Germany. In January 1625 Spens was sent to London via the Netherlands. Oxenstierna and the king were more than keen to learn whether Prince Charles favoured Denmark over Sweden – and Spens’ letter in reply indicated that King James VI and I was fickle about the whole issue of the Common Cause. Oxenstierna preferred then to keep Spens in London, to continue to negotiate with James, and sent him copies of the correspondence between Gustav II and Christian IV. Spens returned to Sweden in May and by June 1625 it was clear that the new monarch, Charles I, did not accept Gustav II Adolf’s proposals regarding military preparations for use against the Habsburgs. Spens was court councillor and Swedish legate to the Stuart court in 1626 and the Stuart court ambassador to Danzig and Brandenburg in 1627. As part of his mission, Spens was asked to raise another 1200 men for his regiment in Sweden. This he achieved when the Scottish Privy Council granted his levy on 13 February 1627. On his return to the Swedish Court, Spens delivered the order of the Garter to King Gustav Adolf in August 1627 in Dirschau. In January 1629 he wrote a report of his regiment, listing all his captains and their company strengths and locations. At this juncture (1628-1630) the regiment was based in Riga. He met his new chaplain Eleazer Borthwick in Elbing who was appointed to the congregation there in 1629. Spens befriended the Scottish cleric John Durie [a cousin of his son-in-law] whom he helped to gain an audience with the Swedish king. Here he became ordinary resident ambassador to the Stuart Court in 1629. In August 1629 an English ship arrived at Pillau, which Spens had sent for use by the Swedish shipping companies. That year his troops were sent to Stralsund when the Swedish army stepped in to protect the town after the defeat and withdrawal of the Danes from war with the Habsburgs. There is also a reference to Spens’ troops being divided and sent to Gothenburg, Kalmar and Stockholm – whether these are the troops under Spens jr or not, is hard to tell. According to the Swedish Intelligencer, three Scottish regiments fought alongside each other after the Swedish army arrived on the continent in 1630. These were the regiments of Donald Mackay Lord Reay, the Spens Regiment and the regiment of Colonel James MacDougall. Whether the colonels were with their troops is not mentioned. However, James Spens sr. had certainly returned to the continent by 1631 accompanied by Eleazer Borthwick and remained with the Court of Gustav II Adolf as they travelled around Germany. Apparently his troops, often referred to as the “English” regiment, were under the command of Earl Crawford and great tensions occurred between the leading officers, which resulted in a lack of morale amongst the soldiery. Spens died in 1632, some say in shock at the death of Gustav II Adolf at Lutzen. His burial took place on 21 May 1634 in Riddarholmskyrkan in Stockholm.

In 1623 Spens was again in Sweden, and was sent by Gustavus to the Scottish privy council to request permission to levy troops in Scotland to repel a threatened Polish invasion. On 24 March 1624 the council authorised his son, James Spens, to levy a body of twelve hundred men to aid the king of Sweden (Masson, Register of the Privy Council, xiii. 364, 478, 500). In the same year Spens was commissioned to return to Sweden and to bring Gustavus into the great alliance against the emperor which was projected by England and France. He reached Stockholm in August and returned in January 1625 accompanied by Bellin, bearing Gustavus’s demands. These were thought extravagant, and the more moderate proposals of Christian of Denmark having been accepted, Spens was despatched in March to persuade Gustavus to enter the confederacy as the ally of Denmark. Failing in this, he retired into private life until 1627, when he was despatched to invest Gustavus with the order of the Garter (Historical Manuscript Commission, 5th Rep. p. 304 b; Cal. State Papers, Dom. pp. 62, 119, 180, 213, 233, 275, 578).

In March 1629 Spens was commissioned by Gustavus to urge Charles to support him in the thirty years’ war. For the next year he was charged with the superintendence of Gustavus’s levies in England, and several letters by him are extant on this subject. They cease in the middle of 1630, but the date of his death is uncertain.

Spens’ family

Spens was married to Agnes Durie and Margareta Forrat (her 2nd marriage was to colonel Hugo Hamilton also ennobled in Sweden). With Agnes Durie he had the children James, David and William, Cecilia, Isabella, and daughter called Elisabeth (who was married to one Alexander Livingstone). With Margareta Forrat he had the children Axel and James.

Source: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/ssne/item.php?id=1642